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Summary of O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman

About the poet- Walt Whitman was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse. His work was controversial in its time, particularly his 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass, which was described as obscene for its overt sensuality.

Summary- O Captain! My Captain! is an elegy written by Walt Whitman in 1865. An elegy is a poem of serious issue, usually lamenting for the death of a particular person. Here, the poet is mourning the death of the 16th president of USA, i.e. Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was assassinated just a few days after the Civil War in America had ended in 1865. In this poem, Whitman is referring to Lincoln as ‘Captain’. The speaker is sailing on a ship, where the ‘ship’ symbolizes the Civil War, that was fought between the Northern and Southern states of the United States over the issues like slavery etc.

In the first stanza, the poet addresses the Captain, and says that their ‘fearful trip’ has now ended. The ship has finally returned home safe after sailing a dangerous voyage. This denotes the end of the Civil War. The war has finally come to an end after enduring several battles at the cost of innocent lives. They have won the prize they had been fighting for, that is victory. Finally, they have achieved unity and the trip has ended. The people have been waiting at the shore to welcome the ship, and the speaker can hear ‘bells’ ringing as they move nearer to the port. But, then the poem takes a turn, and the sentiment is changed. The speaker then discovers the dead body of the Captain of the ship, with blood dripping from his body. The speaker is devastated to find the body of the Captain, who was leading the ship towards the shore. His body is cold and lying on the deck of the ship. Metaphorically, the poet refers to the death of Abraham Lincoln. As Lincoln has been killed, just when the Civil War has ended when they have achieved victory, the people are devastated to hear the news.

In the second stanza, the speaker is requesting the dead Captain to rise up and hear the ringing bells of victory. He is too stunned to believe the fact that the Captain is not going to wake up anymore. He tells the Captain to wake up and see the people who have been waiting to see the Captain. They are waiting with bouquets and wreaths of flower to welcome their dear captain, referencing to Lincoln. After the Civil War had ended, slavery was completely abolished from the United States, and hence Lincoln had proven himself as a hero before the public. They have been waiting to congratulate him on his victory, but little do they know that the dear President is no more. Here, the speaker also addresses the Captain as ‘father’. He says that it all appears as a dream, as he doesn’t want to believe the reality at all.

In the last stanza, the speaker is still shocked to believe that the Captain has actually left for the heavenly abode and not going to come back ever. He says that the Captain doesn’t answer, and his lips are pale, and the speaker cannot feel his pulse. The ship has now reached its final destination and has been anchored safe. The people are still ringing the bells and waiting for the Captain. However, the cold body of the Captain lies on the deck of the ship, and the speaker is left with no other option but to move on. The Civil War has ended, but the person who led the United States throughout this war and succeeded in preserving the Union is no more. The poet doesn’t feel the sweet taste of victory, since the hero is no more. With this the poem comes to an end.

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